Kate and Rob’s Big Adventure, a set on Flickr.
I finally pulled together some photos of our trip across the Juneau Icefield and back down the Taku River. We had a great trip, and it inspired Rob to write a few words about the importance of the Taku River. The pictures tell the story of the trip, and Rob tells the story of the river. Enjoy!
The Taku River: It’s all Salmon Habitat!
To most people in Juneau, Alaska the Taku River means one thing: SALMON. This remote river is Southeast Alaska’s largest salmon producer and the lifeblood of Juneau’s commercial gillnet fishing fleet.
The river itself is an unknown place to most people. It is a blank spot on the map covering a huge swath of land between Juneau and Atlin, British Columbia. Although there are several cabins near the rivers’ mouth, access to the upper reaches of the river is generally only possible with an expensive jet boat or a float plane. After hearing about the Taku over and over, and eating a few tasty Taku sockeye dinners, we decided we needed to get a better look at this legendary river. This May, we set out on a three week, 200-mile journey through the Taku watershed. We started the trip well above the river by skiing across the Juneau Icefield, which is the icy source of many of the rivers in this watershed. When we reached Lake Atlin at other end of the icefield, right across the border from Juneau, we dropped down to the water and followed the lake to Sloko River, a river that plummets from the steep icefield peaks through whitewater canyons until it joins the fast-flowing Nakina River. We spent about a week following this river in packrafts and on foot, through thick brush and deep snow, until we reached the Nakina. Where the Nakina joins the Inklin, they become the braided Taku River. This area has traditionally provided important fishing grounds for the Taku River Tlingit, who depend on the river’s plentiful salmon runs. Along the way down the Sloko and the Taku, we learned a valuable lesson about why the Taku is legendary for its salmon runs: it’s all about the habitat.
Salmon need wild, free-flowing rivers; dams and development destroy salmon habitat. Dams block returning salmon trying to reach spawning areas, and pollution can harm young fry and eggs. Further, erosion and runoff from developed areas can cover spawning areas with silt and negatively affect water quality. The crash of salmon production in the once prolific Columbia River demonstrates this vividly. After walking and paddling miles of the Taku watershed, this lesson became more and more profound for us. The diversity and abundance of wild habitat in the Taku was striking and, from the moment we skied off the icefields, we saw signs of moose, wolves, and bears everywhere we looked. For weeks, we gazed at icy peaks and paddled by fast-flowing streams, huge braided rivers, tidal flats, remote lakes, and massive downed trees in the river, side channels, and back eddies.
It’s the quality and quantity of this dynamic habitat that made our journey so rewarding, and the same characteristics are what make the Taku so rich for salmon. But, like many other once-outstanding salmon producers, the Taku is vulnerable. A major mine is under consideration for the Taku watershed, and potential road routes and other developments have also been discussed. It may be easy to believe that developments in one part of a huge river will not affect the salmon runs, but it is just this type of incremental development that has chipped away at habitat and devastated salmon in other spectacular watersheds.
What we learned on our journey is that it isn’t one place, or a few places, that make the habitat on the Taku inviting for salmon; it’s the entire, intact system. Our trip through the Taku watershed wasn’t easy: we bushwhacked through deep snow, thorny brush, and low trees to get around steep cliffs, ran icy rapids through canyons, fought strong winds, and waded through glacially frigid water. But, the effort we put into the journey gave us a remarkable, and unforgettable, experience. Likewise, managing the Taku to protect wild salmon will require extra effort to keep habitat intact and strong salmon runs returning year after year, but it’s worth the effort.